This is interesting: the New York Times has run two pieces in the last couple of days arguing that religion has nothing to do with the real world. Passover is offered as a source of mystery, but not as a window on what is happening in Israel and Palestine. These pieces have the exact opposite argument to Marc Ellis’s and Robert Cohen’s; those Jews see Passover as a holiday in which Palestine must be dealt with.
Here are the Times pieces:
David Gregory reviews Abigail Pogrebin’s book My Jewish Year, about her spiritual pilgrimage of celebrating 18 Jewish holidays, which was prompted in part by her discussion with Leon Wieseltier. Gregory says in the review that Wieseltier also brought him to greater religious study, and warns the reader not to mix up religion and the real world. No, religion is about things unseen:
Living up to one’s faith is never easy, and opening your heart to the spiritual touch takes time…
To me, the essential question is, Where is God? For Pogrebin, as for many Jews, this is a complicated question — she is a believer, “not in God as all-powerful, but in God as protector and healer.” The question of God is, in my view, one we must spend more time exploring if we are to find meaning and purpose as a community beyond culture and debates over Israel. I prefer going deeper into Jewish liturgy to celebrating the new year for trees.
The other article is by the rightwing Zionist Shmuel Rosner, datelined Tel Aviv, titled “Keep Your Politics Out of Passover.” Rosner tells readers that all the political uses of Passover are a waste of time, or worse:
the modern Haggadot [Passover stories] are a curse. They take a historically unifying celebration of a people and turn it into a politically divisive event. Some Jews celebrate their Passover by mourning an occupation of land; others celebrate by highlighting the reclamation of the same land. Some Jews celebrate by stressing the need for compassion for the stranger; others celebrate by underscoring the merits of tribalism. Passover is a time for Jews to acknowledge their shared roots and their covenants of fate and destiny. Yet many new Haggadot define Jewish groups by pitting them against one another.
They also trivialize Judaism and its sacred festivals and texts. And this is not unique to Passover. There’s a growing tendency among Jews — whether rabbis, teachers, community leaders or lay people — to employ Jewish texts to score political points. A Passover Seder during which you spend time criticizing the Trump administration’s immigration policies or regretting the evacuation of Israeli settlements from Gaza is not a “relevant” Seder, it is a mediocre and redundant one. Passover is for celebrating the transcendent, the mysterious, the eternal, not rehashing worn-out political debates. It is a night to find new meaning in an old script, not to force the text into a preconceived political platform.
These arguments in the Times interest me because they reflect the established Jewish community’s great difficulty with encountering Israel as an occupier and oppressor. When in fact that is part of the job description of religion: the community defines itself and reckons with the world. I am not talking about spirituality here. Yes, spirituality is part of religion’s work, too; but when you cite the “historically unifying celebration of a people,” you are describing the social purpose of organized religions. As Elif Batuman put it: religion offers “a way to make meaning out of the world, a way to find community, a way to have continuity with history.”
There is no higher role for the Jewish religion right now than to deal with the Jews’ experience of history in our time. For me that means seeking an understanding of why two or three generations of Jews in the wake of the Holocaust were smitten by Zionism as the answer to the Jewish problem in the west, and what has been wrought by that adherence. This is why I insist that Zionism is a religious ideology: almost all Jewish institutions have spent the last 50 years telling us that Judaism is today defined by Zionism, and they should be taken at their word, and engaged by young Jews over that faith. Rightwing Zionists Leon Wieseltier and Shmuel Rosner have both been messengers of that ardent and highly-successful religious project, so of course they have zero interest in it being interrogated. The Times is, as usual, practicing avoidance.